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Friday Foundations

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Flickr by bstorage
Flickr by bstorage

When I saw the signs on Van Ness, I have to admit I always stopped in my tracks. The bright yellow signs had the one word to make the heart skip for natives: Playland. Yes, Playland at the Beach, the world's only amusement park inside a fog bank. In classic San Francisco style, it was at the beach, where the temperature would drop 15 degrees from the time you got there until you finally grabbed a potato sack and blasted down the chutes. There was the Big Dipper roller coaster and the carousel, and everything was watched over by Laffing Sal, who was probably responsible for more nightmares in San Francisco than that shark in Jaws.

Playland is of course now long gone, shuttered in 1972, joining a long line of hazy memories: Playland, Sutro Baths, the Montgomery Block, the beautiful arches that used to cover Fillmore Street, and almost all the Cable Car lines. I thought about Wolfgang's (a great little concert hall) burning down and never being replaced, the day the I Magnin's store closed, and the sounds of Turk Murphy at Earthquake McGoon's being silenced.

Does it seem that lately we are waiting longer and longer to save things that mean something in this town? For every stand we take for places like the Gold Dust (which I am happy to report will not be closing down this weekend) and the rebirth of the Old Clam House on Bayshore, we let places like the piers fall apart, and places like Coit Tower become a bizarre focal point for the forces of resistance.

In fact, let's talk about Coit Tower. As you have all probably read by now, we have another legendary San Francisco fixture, the non-binding piece of legislation, making its way towards the June election. This one centers on the murals at Coit Tower, which truly are wonderful and delightfully subversive in many ways (Das Capital, anyone?). And the murals need to be repaired, which no one will deny.

However, this legislation sadly follows in the footsteps of numerous examples of "ballot box budgeting" that we voters seem so fond of, from ancient propositions like the Open Space Fund, the Children's Fund, and the Library Preservation Fund, to more recent ones such as Prop D (more police!) and Prop F (more firehouses!). I have an issue with these efforts because I believe that our city budget should be run by the people we pay to deal with the budget, not by us voters deciding every election cycle what trauma needs to be healed with a one-off piece of legislation. It's the fiscal equivalent of Whack-A-Mole, where you never really address the underlying issues with our budget, you just keep whacking whatever needs help the most that year.

And this leads us to leaving other things off the table. Which get ignored. And pushed to the background, until suddenly they become the cause of the day. And we citizens charge in and order budgets to be set aside and dollars to be "prioritized," as is the case with the Coit Tower mural legislation. This legislation not only wants to prioritize the money that is made at Coit Tower for maintaining the building, but also limit commercial activities and private events.

In other words, we want you to make less money, and yet do more things. In fact, what the legislation really aims to do is keep the profit that is made at Coit Tower from leaving Telegraph Hill, regardless of what other Recreation and Park Department locations need help. Keep the money there, and not let Rec and Park expand the ability of Coit Tower to generate a profit so places like Willie Wong playground down the hill in Chinatown can be fixed. And more places under their purview will fall apart just like the Port Commission is watching the piers rot.

The sad part about all this is that there is a path forward, but for some reason the backers of this legislation are choosing not to go that direction. Instead of creating an organization that claims to be trying to help create more funding for Coit Tower, why not actually do that? The Palace of Fine Arts and the Conservatory of Flowers both have very active "Friends of" nonprofits that work hand in hand with the department, raising funds and identifying needs.

So why the charge to the ballot box instead? Maybe part of the reason is that anything that smacks of a public-private partnership seems to be viewed these days as the work of the devil. After all, that was a reason for people objecting to the America's Cup agreement, and apparently having more events at Coit Tower is damned as "commercializing," even though other department locations are used for exactly that reason.

But that is how Whack-A-Mole is played. Pound on a part of the city budget until it belongs to you, and to hell with the repercussions. Which is why Rec and Park Department Executive Director Phil Ginsburg came out against this legislation.

In a city where we seem to enjoy carving up our budget like a bizarre Thanksgiving turkey, someone actually said no, which makes him my hero for the week. He correctly pointed out that his job is to look across his entire budget as a whole, and be able to freely apply funds where they are needed most. In other words, run his department like an actual business.

Or we can continue to treat our budget as the voter's playground. And we will all be apoplectic years from now as yet another San Francisco landmark slides towards disaster. Hell, it probably won't be that big of a deal... we can always just do another proposition.